Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A-league, aged 6, misbehaving

On a Friday night in December 2006 I was one of 50,333 who turned up to (then) Telstra Dome to witness Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC play out a 0-0 draw. The game itself never reached great heights but the occasion was unforgettable. Long-time watchers of national league football in Australia like myself were simply pinching themselves that night, never ever contemplating that they would witness a crowd of that proportion attending a club fixture in this country, in our lifetime. It was a night we simply celebrated football.

It couldn't last, of course. The following season provided the high water mark, with every A-league team but Perth Glory averaging gates over 10,000 . Now in season six, Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory are the only clubs to average more than 10,000 per game. And just tonight a barren 2,091 watched Gold Coast host Newcastle, the lowest A-league crowd since the hapless New Zealand Knights hosted Central Coast in their final season.

Worse than this, clubs are haemorrhaging financially under the strain of the reduced level of interest. The league model where cashed-up owners seem to single-handedly determine a team's future seems critically flawed. Newcastle, Gold Coast, North Queensland all in recent trouble. Prior to that Adelaide and Brisbane having to be bailed out.

The FFA has taken the brunt of the criticism from media, fans and the football community with bones of contention being the peak body's focus on the 2022 World Cup bid ahead of support for the A-league, and the lack of a separate and independent body to manage the league's affairs.

For Aussie football fans of a particular vintage, the current woes, together with some of the ludicrous suggestions to fix them, sound awfully like the dreadful lurching of the former National Soccer League over its often painful existence from 1977 to 2004. Some themes:

  • "We need to create a second division" The A-league is struggling to keep 11 clubs afloat, yet there are those who would welcome double the number. The short-lived North and South conferences of the old NSL and the failure rate of so many clubs tells a cautionary tale.
  • "Old soccer needs to be welcomed back to the fold" An undeniable factor in the A-league's success in cities like Melbourne has been the absence of any ethnic association with the clubs.
  • "The FFA needs to be run by soccer people again" The most ludicrous charge in the current mess is that FFA CEO Ben Buckley is apparently an AFL-conspired Trojan Horse, set loose in the FFA to inflict damage on behalf of other codes. The best administrators the peak football body has had in this country have been John O'Neill, a rugby man, and Buckley a former AFL man. The eternal petty politics, back-stabbing, conflicts of interest and sheer amateurism of the former NSL administration remains an ugly memory of days gone by.
  • "We need a national cup competition" Notwithstanding that the FA Cup appears to have shed substantial gloss over recent years, the concept of a national cup competition, where rank amateur suburban clubs could battle progressively through preliminary rounds, later bringing in State League, then A-league clubs, does have a certain romantic appeal. Never mind that similar concepts in the days of NSL never really got off the ground. But the effort required now to make this initiative work would be an unnecessary distraction from making the league work.
  • "It needs to be on free-to-air television" Unsurprisingly, this notion seems to feature most heavily on the website of SBS, the free-to-air network that most covets the rights held by Foxtel. Possibly, the Ten network might be interested in using its One channel for A-league, but I'd be hesitant in assuming that the grass is greener on the free-to-air side of the fence.
Some may categorise this "crisis" as part of the necessary growing pains of a new league. And there are some that are calling for a reality check on attendances, pointing to the rather meagre followings in selected long-established European leagues. But at the least, the FFA needs to find a way, with the clubs, to inject interest back into the A-league. There are many like me that will be desperate to avoid reversion to the bad old days.